Thursday, 14 December 2006

Ile Maurice, Umhlanga

There are two English brothers, living by the South African coast. The older one needs a haircut, smokes a fair bit of dope and has an Indian girlfriend. He has become progressively more liberal as he has become older, painting his home in bright colours and listening to hip-hop as he builds a new swimming pool. The younger brother is conservative, wealthy and fastidious. He dresses in Lacoste slip-slops and drives a white Jeep. He has just had an extra layer of razor-wire installed on top of the high wall that surrounds his house. He doesn’t know his maid’s surname, but he can tell you the current value of the property next door within a margin of error of plus-minus R5,000.

The first brother is Durban, the stately city that grew up on the shores of the Indian Ocean in the 1840s. The second is Umhlanga, a high-rise holiday resort a few miles north of Durban. In some ways Île Maurice spans both of them—it is a French-Mauritian restaurant that used to be located in Durban’s ‘Restaurant Mile’, Florida Road, but moved a couple of years ago to an old colonial-era house overlooking Umhlanga’s beach.

Seated on the verandah next to a party of beautiful, bored Italians who drank red wine and chatted constantly on cell phones, we were ignored by the owner? Manager? At any rate, by the middle-aged man who squeezed past our table a couple of times to relight the candle lantern behind me without an apology or acknowledgement. Even when I tried to pin him down to ask about the restaurant he shrugged off any attempt at interaction and made his escape as quickly as possible.

The waiting staff on the evening we visited was composed almost entirely of handsome, young white men whose hearts were not really in it; I cherish the memory of one surf-god who managed to carry three plates at the same time—his tongue literally sticking out with the concentrated effort of doing so.) In the tortuous social codes of apartheid-era South Africa, for expensive restaurants to employ white people as waiters or bus-boys was often one of the most effective ways to signal luxury, privilege and—in every sense—exclusivity. Twelve years after liberation, in Umhlanga at least, some things haven’t changed.

All of which I could ignore if the food had exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately it barely met them. The menu veers between French haute cuisine of the most predictable kind (Vichyssoise, soupe crabe) and local fish presented at eye-watering prices. Daube de poisson au Captain Sarno (Salvatore Sarno leads South Africa’s Americas Cup team) was a generous fillet of line fish in a watery tomato sauce which bore no evidence of the promised coconut. It came with a tiny portion of vegetables, and a vast bowl of stewed, wet brown lentils which combined with the tomato sauce to form a sort of grainy, brown soup in which chunks of line fish bobbed.

I turned down the banane au coco flambée, crêpes Suzettes and other sweet offerings that nobody in the Northern hemisphere has put on a menu for the last thirty years. My companion had crème brulée and reported that it was very eggy and barely brulée. Two main courses, a pudding, coffee and a bottle of Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc came to R440. Good value for money? Hardly.

The logo that the Mauvis family has chosen for Île Maurice is a charming device depicting a dodo. The dodo, you recall, came from Mauritius; it was luxuriantly built, slow-moving and incapable of flight or innovation. It became extinct.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Île Maurice
9 McCausland Crescent
Umhlanga Rocks
South Africa

Telephone: (031) 561-7609

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